Outdoor Table and Benches

Just in time for dining alfresco

Table: Overall dimensions: 62"w × 38"d × 29"h

Bench: Overall dimensions: 60"w × 141⁄4"d × 171⁄8"h

There are few things that compare with the simple joy of sitting down for a nice meal outdoors with the sun shining and a gentle breeze blowing. While this alfresco dining set can’t do a lot to guarantee you the perfect weather, it does provide a great place to enjoy it.

When my client approached me with this commission, the goal was to design a dining table-and-bench set that would accommodate up to eight people without appearing oversized or undersized. She wanted something with the kind of subtle grace that is usually lacking in commercial outdoor furniture, and made of material that would withstand the elements and accommodate the kind of extreme movement that wood encounters outdoors.

To suit the bill, I designed the top to allow a variety of seating arrangements (some requiring extra chairs in addition to the benches shown here) while incorporating gentle curves and inward slanting legs to provide comfort and a touch of style. To ensure durability, I used naturally weather-resistant cedar, joining the parts with strong, but easily made “loose” tenons fixed in place with waterproof glue. Topping all this off with a tough finish guarantees that this furniture will be part of the family for a long time to come.

Make the tabletop

1 Lay out your nicest looking stock for the long rails, end rails, and crosspieces (A, B, C). As both cedar and redwood are most commonly available as 2× lumber for the construction trades, the parts for this table were designed to make the most of these dimensions. Keep in mind that you can hide any waney edges by orienting them downward.

2 Cut the pieces (A, B, C) to the sizes shown in the Cut List.

3 Clamp the two long rails (A) together with their better faces (the “show” faces) oriented outward, as shown in Photo A. Mark these faces with an “X” to identify their orientation later. Now lay out the mortises as well as the end rail (B) and crosspiece (C) edge locations where shown in Figure 1, Mortise Layout Detail, working from the center of the long rail outward.

4 Make the mortising jig shown on this page. Install its horizontal fence, and attach toggle clamps along its length. Outfit your plunge router with an edge guide and a 1⁄2ʺ spiral upcut bit, adjusting the router’s depth stop for a 11⁄16ʺ-deep cut.

5 Clamp one of the long rails (A) to the jig with the marked “show” face oriented inward. Adjust the router’s edge guide to center the cut across the thickness of the rail, and set the stops to control the mortise length. Once you’re set up, extend the mortise reference lines onto the top of the jig for positioning of subsequent cuts. Then rout the mortises, as shown in Photo B, beginning the cut with the router positioned against the right-hand stop (as viewed from the face of the jig), and pulling it toward the left-hand stop.

Rout the mortises in several passes, retracting the bit at the end of the cut before moving the router against the opposite stop to begin the next pass. 
When routing end mortises, be sure the end of the workpiece is flush with the jig’s top surface. Use a cover of scrap to protect against clamp damage. 

6 Mount the second long rail (A) onto the jig with its show face oriented inward, and rout all of its mortises.

7 Lay out the mortises on both ends of both end rails (B), and one end of one crosspiece (C), where shown in Figure 1. Mark the show face of each piece with an “X”.

8 Swap the jig’s horizontal fence for the vertical fence, and screw toggle clamps to the fence. Clamp the marked-out crosspiece (C) in the jig with the show side facing inward, and reposition the stops to suit the mortise location. Leave the edge guide set as it was.

9 Rout the mortise in the end of the crosspiece (C), as shown in Photo C. Then unclamp it, rotate it end for end in the jig, and rout the other end, still keeping the show side against the jig. Repeat for every crosspiece.

10 The mortise on one end of each end rail (B) will align with the setup you just used to mortise the crosspieces (C). Cut mortises in those particular ends of both end rails. Then reposition the stops to mortise the two opposite ends.

11 Mill at least 64ʺ of 1⁄2ʺ-thick × 23⁄16ʺ-wide stock for loose tenons. (When thicknessing the stock, ensure that it fits snugly in the mortises without force.) While you’re at it, cut the same amount for each bench you’re making. Bullnose the edges of the stock using a 1⁄4ʺ round-over bit in a table-mounted router. Then crosscut the individual tenons to 2ʺ long.

12 Enlist someone to help you with the glue-up, as there is a lot of glue to spread and a lot of pieces to align. First, perform a complete dry-assembly to check the fits of the joints, to set up your clamps, and to rehearse your assembly procedures.

13 When you’re ready to glue up, begin by spreading glue in the mortises of one of the long rails (A). Then spread glue on that rail’s tenons, and tap them home. Spread glue in the mating mortise on one end of each end rail (B) and crosspiece (C), and slide them in place, aligning their edges with the reference marks on the long rails. As you work, be sure to keep the show sides of all the pieces properly oriented.

14 With the assembly standing on edge, spread glue in the opposite mortises of the end rails (B) and crosspieces (C). Spread glue on the rest of the tenons and tap them in place. Finally, spread glue in the mortises of the second long rail. Start attaching the rail at one end, working your way along its length. When all the joints are together and properly aligned, add clamps to pull the assembly tight. (Don’t worry about protecting the edges from clamp damage, as you’ll be cutting them away later.)

15 Referring to the Tabletop Mortise Layout in Figure 1, mark the location of each of the four corners of the top. Then drive a finish nail 1⁄4ʺ outside each of those marks, as shown in Photo D.

16 Bend a strip of 1⁄4ʺ-thick, straight-grained wood against the nails, and trace along it to lay out the curves, as shown in Photo E. Cut to your layout line with a jigsaw, and sand the curves fair and smooth. Round over the edges with a 1⁄4ʺ-radius round-over bit in a handheld router.

Mortising Jig

This mortising jig will hold workpieces horizontally or vertically to allow edge- or end-mortising for making loose tenon joints. It is equipped with toggle clamps for securing the pieces and adjustable stops to control the length of the mortises. The jig is designed to work with a plunge router equipped with an edge guide.

Make the jig as shown, but don’t sweat the exact dimensions or precise placement of the various holes and slots; they aren’t critical. There are only two crucial criteria: First, make sure the jig’s face and top surface are square to each other. To do this, run the glued-up top/riser/base assembly face down over your jointer to ensure the front face is all one plane. Then run the jig upside down with the front face against the jointer fence to square the top surface to the face. Second, run the whole jig upside down through your tablesaw to ensure the rear edge of the top is parallel to the jig’s face.

Note: Disregard the 1⁄2 × 1⁄2" strip screwed to the back edge of the jig’s top in the photos. It was a modification for an accessory not used here and can be omitted.

Woods That Weather Well

The type of wood you choose for outdoor furniture will largely determine how well it holds up. In the U.S., classic domestic choices include various species of cedar, cypress, and redwood. These decay-resistant softwoods are fairly lightweight, which is important if you move your pieces a lot. The downside with these woods is that, because they are relatively soft, they dent easily. For a domestic wood that’s both tough and weather-resistant (but a good deal heavier), consider white oak.

Exotic species that do well outdoors include teak and ipe. Both are extremely rot-resistant but have drawbacks. Teak is relatively soft and only moderately heavy, but it contains silica, which quickly dulls non-carbide cutting tools. Ipe, on the other hand, can be hard to work because of its density. It also makes for very heavy furniture. Nonetheless, both woods make beautiful outdoor objects.

Whatever the wood, outdoor furniture will eventually gray without a good weather-resistant finish on it. Even then, you’ll need to maintain that finish to keep the pieces looking good. See the main text for my recommendation.

Bend the fairing strip against the finish nails. Trace along the inside of the strip to lay out the tabletop’s curved edges.
Make overlapping passes across the dado head to create the wide rabbets at the ends of the legs. Use the rip fence as a stop to ensure consistency.

Position the rip fence as a stop to help you keep the spacing of the notches consistent on the various pieces.

Make the table base

1 Mill the pieces for the legs (D, G), rails (E, H), and runners (F, I) to the sizes listed in the Cut List.

2 Crosscut both ends of the two end legs (D) to 75°, as shown in Figure 1. Crosscut one end of each of the side legs (G) to 78°.

3 Set up a dado head on your tablesaw, configuring it for as wide a cut as possible. Adjust the height to 3⁄16ʺ. Use a miter gauge set at 75° to feed the end legs (D) over the blade to create the 3ʺ-wide angled rabbets shown in Figure 1. Reverse the miter gauge angle to cut the opposite sides, as shown in Photo F.

4 While you have the dado head set up, cut the mating notches in the center rails (E). Locate these notches 43⁄8ʺ in from ends of the stretchers. After you cut the four notches, clamp the end legs (D) in place between them. Then hold the center runners (F) in place to mark them for their notches, and then cut the notches using the same dado head setup.

5 Increase the height of the dado blade to exactly half the width of the rails and runners (theoretically 11⁄2ʺ). Referring to Figure 1, lay out pairs of mating notches where the center rails and runners (E, F) intersect the cross rails and runners (H, I). The distance between the notches should be equal to the distance between each pair of runners (and rails) with the legs clamped in place (theoretically 5⁄8ʺ). Saw the notches, as shown in Photo G.

6 Referring to Figure 1, lay out the notches in the cross rails (H), insetting them 21⁄4ʺ from the ends. Change the dado height back to 3⁄16ʺ, angle your miter gauge to 78°, and use the setup to saw the notches in the cross rails (H). Also, saw the rabbets on the angled ends of the side legs (G).

7 Set up the table base with the end legs (D) clamped in place between the center rails (E) and runners (F). Fit one cross rail and one cross runner (H, I) into their notches in the center rails and runners (E, F). Clamp the side legs (G) in place, mark them to length, and mark the rabbet shoulders at the lower end of the leg (Photo H). At the same time, mark one cross runner (I) for the locations of the angled notches that will accept the side legs (G). Use this cross runner as a guide to mark its companion. Repeat the process at the other end of the base.

8 Saw the rabbets on the bottom ends of the side legs (G) and the notches in the cross runners (I), using a dado head as before. Then revert to a standard saw blade and cut the legs to length.

9 Lay out the bevels on the ends of the runners (F, I), where shown in Figure 1. Then cut the bevels on the bandsaw. Clean up the saw marks with a hand plane.

10 Lay out the curves on the ends of the rails (E, H). Make the cuts with a bandsaw or jigsaw, and clean up with a sander.

11 Using an exterior glue, such as Titebond III, glue and screw the end legs (D) in place between the center rails and runners (E, F). Temporarily place one of the cross runners (I) in its notches to help the assembly stand upright on your bench as you glue and screw the cross rails and runners (H, I) to the side legs (G) at the opposite end of the base. As you do this, be sure that the cross runners (I) extend through the opening between the center rails and runners (E, F). When assembling all of these joints, clamp the pieces together to hold them tight as you predrill the holes and then drive the #8 × 2ʺ screws home.

12 Once the side legs (G) are attached to the cross rails and runners (H, I), glue and screw the cross rails and runners into their notches in the center rails and runners (E, F) with #8 × 21⁄2ʺ screws.

Make the Benchtops

1 Make the parts for the long rails (J), end rails (K), and crosspieces (L) to the sizes shown in the Cut List. When milling stock for the crosspieces, work with lengths that can be safely fed through the planer, crosscutting the individual crosspieces to final length as the last step. Mark the show face of each piece with an “X”.

2 Clamp the long rail (J) pairs together, and lay out the mortises as you did for the tabletop, but referring to the Benchtop Mortise Layout in Figure 2.

3 Rout the mortises in the long rails as you did those in the table rails, orienting the show face against the jig.

4 Lay out a mortise on one end of one crosspiece (L), and on each end of the end rails (K). Use the marked pieces to set up the mortising jig to rout the crosspieces and the end rails in the same manner as you did for the tabletop. Remember to keep the show face against the jig.

5 Crosscut tenons from the stock you milled when making the table. Using waterproof glue, assemble the benchtops in the same manner as described for the assembly of the tabletop, and as shown in Photo I. Like the tabletop, each of the benchtops involves a lot of pieces to align and glue to swab, so you may want to enlist a helper.

6 Once the glue dries, lay out the curves on the ends of the benchtop using your fairing strip. The benchtop is narrow enough that there’s no need to support the strip with nails. Simply brace the strip against your leg, and bend it with one hand as you trace with the other. Round over all of the edges with a 1⁄4ʺ round-over bit.

Make the bench bases

1 Cut the legs (M), cleats (N), and runners (O) to size. Crosscut the ends of the legs to 81°. Arrange the parts for each end assembly (M, N, O) in their final orientation, as shown in Figure 2. Then mark what will be the exterior face of each part with an “X” for orientation in the mortising jig.

2 Lay out the mortises on one of the cleats (N) and on the upper end of each of two paired legs (M), where shown in Figure 2.

3 Cut the mortises in the undersides of the cleats (N) using the horizontal fence on your mortising jig, as you did when mortising the top rails (J). Mount the pieces on the jig with the marked face oriented inward.

4 Change to the vertical fence to rout a mortise in the upper end of each leg. However, instead of registering the leg against the fence, angle it so its end is flush with the top of the jig (Photo J).

5 Rip enough tenon stock to 17⁄16ʺ to use for joining the bases, and then crosscut them to fit the mortises you just routed. Working with each end assembly in turn, dry-fit the legs (M) to the cleat (N), put the runner (O) in place, and then mark out the runner mortises based on the positions of the legs.

6 Rout mortises in the runners (O) using the mortising jig outfitted with its horizontal fence.

7 Cut the stretcher (P) and beam (Q) to the sizes shown in the Cut List, and saw the bevel on each end of the beam.

8 Set up a dado head on the tablesaw and cut 1⁄4ʺ-deep notches in the center of each cleat (N) and runner (O), where shown in Figure 2. Cut mating 1⁄4ʺ-deep notches in each stretcher (P), and 11⁄8ʺ-deep notches in each beam (Q).

9 Glue the leg assemblies together, as shown in Photo K.

10 Glue and screw each stretcher (P) and beam (Q) in place with #8 × 2ʺ screws.

11 Cut the braces (R) to the thickness and width listed in the Cut List, but leave them a couple inches oversized in length for now. Hold one of the braces in place at a 65° angle, as shown in Photo L. Mark the piece for length, and then use it as a guide as you cut all the remaining braces on the tablesaw. Glue and screw the braces in place with #8 × 2ʺ screws.

Clamping a keystone-shaped wedge between the legs can help even out the pressure and allow the joints to draw up tight.
The braces add needed strength to the benches while echoing the table’s angled legs.

Finishing

1 Apply a clear finish that is formulated for outdoor use. The pieces in the lead photo were treated with Cabot’s Australian Timber Oil. I’ve found that a yearly recoating with this product will keep your table and benches looking good, despite whatever Mother Nature dishes out.

2 After the finish is dry, fasten the table base to its top with #8 × 31⁄2ʺ roundhead screws counterbored 1⁄2ʺ deep into the underside of the center rails and cross rails (E, H). Attach the bench bases to their tops in the same manner, but with #8 × 2ʺ roundhead screws.

3 Screw plastic glides to the undersides of the runners on both the table and benches to elevate the wood above the ground or deck. 

About Our Designer/Builder

Ken Burton has been working with wood for more than 30 years and writing about it nearly as long. Check out his website at www.wrwoodworks.com. You can take classes with Ken this summer at Peters Valley Craft Center in Layton, New Jersey, and at Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren, Vermont.

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